The future of journalism


Birmingham writer Wade Kwon just used Twitter to ask about the future of journalism. He’s getting ready for a panel discussion in front of J-school students at the University of Alabama.

For some reason I tweeted back (with exactly 140 characters): @WadeOnTweets Future of journalism is Waffle House: It’ll be Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked, Topped & Diced. Figure out what I mean.

I wasn’t sure what I meant myself, when I wrote that, or why Waffle House hash browns should come to mind. For a brief, chilling moment I thought I might be channeling former governor Fob James, who famously proposed the Waffle House chain as a model for good gummint.

But no worries. All I was really doing was grabbing a random meme to use in thinking about a large, chaotic topic. So here we go.

In the future, journalism will be:

  • Scattered: This one’s easy. News and interpretation will be gleaned from even more numerous sources than they are now. No one will read just one news source like the daily paper, or watch one nightly news broadcast.
  • Smothered: I.e., constantly sharing attention with other stuff, which will constantly threaten to overwhelm it. Consider: When radio was a brand-new medium, people sat by the set and listened. Later the radio competed with daily life for our attention; we listened while washing the dishes or driving the car. Then TV came along. Online journalism is like radio in the 21st century. It already has constant, full-on competition for readers’ attention.
  • Covered: Two things come to mind.
    1. Journalists will continue to write obsessively about the state of their profession. Cross-pollination with the blogosphere will enhance this tendency — which may not be helpful.
    2. Also, software may increasingly “cover” the news by generating machine summaries of human writing, in small or large quantities. This could be interesting and useful in an age of information overload.
  • Chunked: Text will be delivered in smaller pieces than we’re used to in traditional media, or even on blogs. These chunks will be about as small as a web page — without a scrollbar — on a mobile phone. This aspect of the medium demands different writing techniques — but not “dumb” ones, as cynics will be tempted to assume. Think of them as post-modern paragraphs: A story may be made of many connected chunks, and will be no more “dumbed down” than a story that is composed of traditional paragraphs. The chunks* may even be connected in more than one sequence. The potential of hypertext is something we’ve barely begun to explore.
  • Topped: Garnished with video, or visual representations of data, as a matter of course. The text will still be the mainstay of online media, though.
  • Diced: Maybe, to distinguish itself from other online content, journalism will link directly to views and sources from all sides of a story, instead of one ostensibly “neutral” point of view. The story may go in more than one direction, depending on the reader’s choice of links. It’ll be possible, if the reader chooses to go along, to explore perspectives diametrically opposed to one’s own. Or one can stick to the path that is familiar.

Would you like a cup of coffee to go with that?

* Feel free to come up with a more elegant name than “chunks.” Jeffrey Zeldman, web designer extraordinaire, used the word about a decade ago in a noted essay on writing for the Web: “Chunks” are blocks of text, usually no more than a hundred words long and often much less. They reflect the fact that many Web users don’t like to scroll down the screen to read a long document (especially since poor monitor resolution makes text a little blurry and slows down reading speed). A chunk displays all its text in one screen, without scrolling, and lets readers then jump to another page. I call this “hit and run” reading.
Don’t consider chunks as a problem. If you can condense your original print text to fit into a series of independent hundred-word chunks, you’ve done your readers a favor. They’ll get what they want faster, more easily, and in the sequence they choose.

3 thoughts on “The future of journalism

  1. This is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

    Thanks for this in-depth essay. Bonus points, because I love Waffle House hash browns.

  2. There are two other options at most WHs:

    * peppered = hash browns with peppers (option added 1999)
    * capped = hash browns with mushrooms (option added 2000)

    Do you have thoughts about these conditions?

    I think peppered is content full of gratuitous links to other content (helping with SEO), but nothing comes to mind about capped except psychedelic dreams of grandeur by the author . Based on how well you wrote the post above, I’m sure you’ll have something better to say and will check back to read any updates.

  3. Thanks, Curtis. I like your gloss of “peppered,” which calls attention to one of the motivations of bloggers, but also web entrepreneurs: SEO and standing out from the crowd — an interest that is, to say the least, not necessarily compatible with good journalism.

    Peppering could also be done in a more constructive way, more along the lines I described as “diced,” i.e., laying out direct contacts to varying perspectives on a story. It all depends, I guess, on whether the web author (I resist the term “content provider”) thinks more in terms of journalism as a craft — something to be done as well as possible — or more as a means to a paycheck, celebrity, or some other end.

    Which leads me to your “psychedelic dreams of grandeur” by some authors. I like this, but am not sure it counts as a real way to fix hash browns — especially as WH isn’t known to serve psilocybin!

    So what could “capped” with mushrooms signify? Well, as a mushroom is a fungus, meaning it lives off dead matter, maybe “capped” journalistic hash browns will be the kind served up with items from the Web’s ever-growing “morgue,” as newspaper journalists call the archive of past editions.

    The Web is providing easy access to archival material of all kinds, not just old newspapers but unique manuscripts formerly accessible only by traveling to the place where they were housed. Then there are the virtual museums, interpretive websites like The Valley of the Shadow, some Library of Congress holdings, rare books that have been Googled, etc., etc. Most archival material will probably never go online, at least not in our lifetime. But what’s already there is an unprecedented treasure trove, and it can be found and used rapidly enough to be useful to journalists. Whether they use it well or not is another question.

    I guess I’m suggesting that one new frontier for journalism is richer use of the past.

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